The first man in Rome by Colleen McCullough


If you think Colleen McCullough only wrote tear jerkers like “The Thorn Birds”, you better think again.

In a nutshell:

Short synopsis:

Gaius Marius is climbing up the career ladder and becomes consul six times in a row. Sulla evolves from a debauched pauper to a military man occupying his rightful place in the Roman society.

Language I read the book in: English

Did I like it? VERY much so.

For people who: like ancient history, historical fiction, ancient Rome, political scheming, power struggles, warfare

My thoughts: 

Starting to read:

I really like the beginning with Marius bearing a grudge because his chances of being consul are diminishing, and Sulla bemoaning his plight of being a pauper in spite of being a true Patrician. I sympathize with both of them. But, oh, this is going to be a long read. Tons of names and situations to remember (in Rome, Numidia, Numantia etc.) and a lot of back history.

Later on:

The story is picking up a bit of speed. Well, not really, but things are happening. Marius’ marriage, Sulla’s coming into fortune (which happens in a very strange way – it is his doing, but it all starts with something that looks like fate – the grass crown working for him?). Sulla is such a cunning devil – but very ingenious, I like him. Of course this is historical fiction and I don’t remember much about his biography I once read, so it might all be a complete fabrication; I need to re-read that biography afterwards to check.

The war against Jugurtha is in full swing now and Marius is getting his future told by Martha. I am enjoying how Colleen McCullough is setting things up, alternating between the political/military world of Marius and the  civilian and rather debauched life that Sulla is leading until now. You know that those two figures will meet soon and the anticipation is great!

The number of people in the book is mind boggling. The fact that father and son often are called the same (if you are lucky one is “the elder”, one “the younger” or they have a different cognomen) doesn’t make it any easier. So you have to be on your toes every minute in order to know who talks to whom about whom,
At times when I interrupted reading the book for a few days and came back I had to get back into all the names again even though I am not completely unfamiliar with them.

There is no point in talking about the plot of this book any further, so I will only mention a few snippets. It is the first book in a series dealing with real people and the number of events and historical facts mentioned and embellished is just too enormous.  The war against Jugurtha, Aurelia’s marriage to Gaius Julius Caesar, Livia Drusa’s marriage to Caepio and her infatuation with her unknown “Ulysses”, the siege of Burdigala, armies annihilated because one arrogant patrician won’t merge his army with a new man’s, the defeat of the Germans, Sulla’s German family and so on and on…

Towards the end:

We go back in time a bit again to hear about Aurelia’s life in her insula while Gaius Julius Caesar is away in Gaul. Oh, how interesting this is! We all know what an insula is, but here we learn how it is set up, how many and what kinds of people used to live in  that particular one, about the management of it and about the problems a landlady encounters. Aurelia is a tough woman and understands how things are done in the Subura very quickly. We learn about the extortion business in the area with the crossroads tavern as the headquarter and how Aurelia even tames the local assassin until he becomes her humble servant.

The book ends with another bang. A terrible murder has been committed and as a result there is a short, effective, yet unbloody, war inside the pomerium. The last few pages indicate that for once a few quiet months lie ahead. I am sure this is what everybody needs after the last six years.

All in all:

What I liked most is that these are all historical facts which are told in a fictional way. I don’t know how many of those situations are true and how many are invented, but they throw a colorful life on a period about which most of us know just dates and parentage and wars.
We all know that Gaius Julius Caesar’s parents were Aurelia and Gaius Julius Caesar. This might be good enough, but here we read about how Aurelia’s uncle not only suggests to her parents to let her choose her own husband, which is very unconventional to say the least, if not scandalous, and how he plays matchmaker. We all know that Livia Drusa is the mother of Servilia who will later become Caesar’s lover. But here we read about how she was forced by her brother to marry Caepio in a way that makes every modern woman shudder.
It gives life to people that we normally only know as names.

Even if you are only vaguely interested in ancient Rome, this book is an absolute must read. If you have never read anything about ancient Rome before and don’t care for it either, read this as any other fictional novel and you will have tasted blood.

At the end of the book there is a huge glossary as interesting as the novel itself. It explains not only  decisions Colleen McCullough made (e.g. Julia’s sister Julilla marrying Sulla, which would account for a few things that will happen later on and for which we have no explanation), but also certain Roman customs, names, relations and so on. On top of that the book comes with a number of maps and floor plans that the author drew herself. I can’t get over the amount of research that went into this book, let alone the whole series. I can’t wait to continue with The Grass Crown.

Location: Ancient Rome, around 100BC

Bust of Gaius MariusBust of Lucius Cornelius SullaRuins of the forum by Canaletto, 1742

Images from Wikipedia

Movie tip

Julius Caesar mini series



Product info and buy link :

Title The first man in Rome
Author Colleen McCullough
Publisher Arrow Books
ISBN 9780099462484
I got this book from I swapped it
Buy link Buy The first man in Rome
More info Masters of Rome series
still more info Gaius Marius and Sulla

If you click on the buy link above you will be taken to The Book If you buy the book through this link I will earn a small commission. You can find my general affiliate links to The Book Depository, and here.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? I would love to hear other opinions.

This post is part of

Tea & Books Reading Challenge

The Tea & Books Reading Challenge is hosted by The Book Garden.

8 Comments Write a comment

  1. I’ve always wanted tor read more fiction about ancient Rome, ever since I read Iggulden’s Emperor series. I agree, books with a lot of characters require a lot of focus, but historical facts presented through fiction are a great way to learn about history. I have to remember to check out this series.


    • Pepca, I hated the first Iggulden book and didn’t finish it. The difference between the two writers are that McCullough makes things up that are possible and which we do not know exactly, so they COULD be true.

      Iggulden makes things up that are simply historically inaccurate. I was so so annoyed with The Gates of Rome and gave the next books in the series away unread. Too bad because I was really looking forward to them.


  2. Funny, how I read a few of the books in this series ages ago (Julius Caesar fan, so I started halfway the series…) and now within a short period you and Sakura from Chasingbawa have featured the first book in the series. I think it’s a sign that I should start anew. Have you read any of Colleen McCullough’s other books yet? I just finished On, Off, which is a crime novel situated in sixties America. So different from her other work. Pretty good (and gruesome) too!


    • Oh, I must go and read Sakura’s post right away, I must have missed that one! I am now reading the second book and it is just as good, but I am still at the beginning. But I prefer Sulla to Marius, so I will probably like the second one even better.

      I have read The thorn birds years ago and thought it was a terrible tear jerker, and was so surprised to read this one. Totally different and extremely well researched. Not saying that Thornbirds wasn’t, but the Rome books are a different calibre.


  3. I read this years ago, long after my vague interest in Roman history had been forgotten along with most of what they taught us in school. I really need to read The Grass Crown before I forget everything that happened in this book. I hope there is a summary at the beginning of each book…

    I really enjoyed it, though it was heavy going and I didn’t know that much about Roman history so I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia looking things up. I really enjoyed being that immersed and how McCullough didn’t treat her like an idiot like some authors do.

    Sulla is evil… but I love him!
    Fiona’s last post ..Book Review–The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami


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